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Updated: October 17, 2019

Biotech startup relocating from Mass. to Biddeford

Courtesy / Prapela Inc. Prapela performs a table test on its hospital bassinet pad, which incorporates a gentle vibration designed to help newborns diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome and premature infants with apnea.

Prapela Inc., a biotechnology company creating a medical device for infant health, is moving its development and commercialization work from Concord, Mass., to the Pepperell Mill Campus in Biddeford — and could be hiring there. 

The move will put Prapela closer to its two Maine-based partners, Saunders Electronics in South Portland and Volk Packaging in Biddeford, which handle manufacturing, assembly and shipping. Prapela’s research will continue to be based in Massachusetts, according to a news release.

Launched in 2017, the company develops products that utilize its patented technology: stochastic vibrotactile stimulation. 

“Stochastic” refers to random distribution; "vibrotactile” refers to the perception of vibration through touch. The technology is a gentle, non-habit-forming vibration that supports breathing, heart rate and relaxation in infants. Published clinical studies report the technology benefits newborns diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome and premature infants suffering from apnea.

In June, Prapela introduced a consumer product using the technology — a “baby box,” a portable, foldable sleep environment first developed in Finland. The product is available for purchase online; marketing is primarily by word-of-mouth. Prapela is also seeking  U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance for its medical device, a hospital bassinet pad. That OK could come in the next 12 months, CEO John Konsin told Mainebiz.

“Establishing operations in Maine will accelerate product development and ultimately, our time to market,” he said in the release. “With our Maine-based manufacturing partners, we have a significant opportunity to produce a breakthrough device to help opioid-exposed babies and provide some much-needed relief for their caregivers. Additionally, we hope to speed up the release of our standard baby box, a product that encourages safe infant sleep practices."

Hiring for Biddeford

Prapela, whose only current employee is Konsin, plans to add two staff at its Biddeford location in early 2020, and other hires could come by the end of the year. They'll include product development professionals and experts to support e-commerce and customer relationship management.

Konsin said he identified Biddeford’s Pepperell Mill campus though a search process for a new company headquarters in order to grow the company. 

“I looked at places in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine,” he said. “I was biased toward Maine because of our two partners that are already located there. I heard through word-of-mouth that Biddeford is going through a renaissance. I literally went into Biddeford one day, saw Pepperell Mill, asked for a tour, walked around town, and felt it was a great location for us.”

Other attractions of the location included its affordability and Biddeford’s up-and-coming vibe, he said.

Maine & Co., a private, nonprofit organization that helps businesses locate and expand in the state, worked with Prapela to help it identify and find the necessary attributes to develop and sustain a long-term operation in Maine. 

“We were able to identify business assistance programs for Prapela, and we are pleased the company will significantly contribute to the state’s expanding life science biotechnology industry,” Maine & Co. Vice President of Operations Ashley Pringle said in the release.

Prapela is initially starting with almost 2,000 square feet at Pepperell, and Konsin expects the space to be operational by the end of this year. 

“We’ll be doing product development there, including product improvements and next-generation product work,” he said. “And it will become our commercialization headquarters, where we’ll focus on improving our social media presence and coordinate sales through our e-commerce website. The research program will stay in Massachusetts for now.”

Courtesy / Prapela Inc.
John Konsin, Prapela’s co-founder and CEO, plans to move the startup’s commercialization base from Concord, Mass., to Pepperell Mill Campus in Biddeford.

The company currently occupies Konsin’s home office and a space at the University of Massachusetts/Lowell’s Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center & Biotech Incubator.

Medical use

To date, Prapela has won over $1.75 million in grants and awards. During 2019, the Ohio Opioid Technology Challenge and the National Institute on Drug Abuse awarded Prapela over $1.4 million for its work with opioid-exposed newborns. Neonatal abstinence syndrome in opioid-exposed babies is perhaps the fastest-growing pediatric health care issue in the U.S., according to Konsin.

“An estimated 50,000 infants born this year will be diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome and a higher number will be born with some type of drug exposure but not diagnosed because their symptoms won’t be as severe,” he said. “Our vision is that the product will be used in the hospital for treatment, not as a sole therapy but as an adjunctive use with existing therapies.”

Courtesy / Prapela Inc.
Prapela’s stochastic vibrotactile stimulation hospital bassinet pad.

The vibration pad has been in development and clinically evaluated by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital over the past 10 years, he said.

"We’ll be pursuing additional grants next year to further help our research efforts,” including a National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation Research Phase 2 grant, he added.

In the release, Gov. Janet Mills said, “Prapela’s investment in Biddeford will create good jobs in York County and help the company advance its innovative and critical work to address neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is particularly important as Maine continues to combat the opioid epidemic.”

Konsin was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the BioME 2019 Annual Conference, scheduled Thursday in Portland, but the event was cancelled due to electrical power issues at the venue. No further information was available.

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